By Hannah Grubbs
Imagine you’re sitting at the dinner table with your old white grandma and her and your parents are going on and on about how Antifa was behind the insurrection and that Trump won the election. You, a well-informed person, interject to say, “Well, the Antifa part is unsure and Trump actually lost the election.” You’re probably met with icy glares, some vulgar shouting, and maybe a cane to the back, although hopefully not.
This dinner just seems annoying in the moment, but what happens when half the country is like this? What happens when every old white grandma is ready to hit college students with canes? What happens when every person gets caught in their own filter bubble? There are plenty of think pieces already out there on the dangers of the filter bubble. Yet, there isn’t much information out there on how to fix it — mainly, as I’ll argue, because we are conflating the politics of the filter bubble with the psychological trauma that our personal filter bubble’s cause. But there is one thing — that we’ve all pretty much seen — that provides a path forward: WandaVision.
Plenty of words have already been written on WandaVision and the filter bubble. But few have focused on relating these bubbles to trauma and why we should be terrified of Wanda’s bubble becoming reality. These untouched topics are so important because all Americans, basically all humans have just been through possibly the most traumatic experience of their lives, the COVID-19 pandemic. If we don’t address the trauma angle, then these scary filter bubbles will take over the world in the next year. So, the first step to superhero fighting these bubbles is understanding them. And we can do this by using WandaVision’s universe, in which there are two distinct bubbles: the brainwashing one and the happy false reality.
Starting with the basics, a filter bubble is a place of isolation in which algorithms feed us information, that based on our search history, we should like. Well, welcome to Westview: the town in WandaVision which happens to be a perfect example of just that! For example, the people know nothing of their prior lives, know nothing of the real news that is happening outside their town. Wanda is mind-controlling the townspeople and all the while the townspeople have a little bit of their consciousness in-tack and can see everything that their body is doing. But, they can’t stop it. They are detached from their physical, ‘real’ bodies, sort of like how we get when we’re constantly scrolling on Instagram, our eyes fixated on the screen. Our brains just want more and the algorithms are happy to provide, which in turn encloses us in a filter bubble.
These filter bubbles happen across all kinds of media and are insanely easy to get trapped in, and definitely more likely than a red-headed witch showing up in your hometown. On Facebook specifically, the content that is on your feed probably isn’t from someone you’re following. Shocking, right? According to a 2015 study, it apparently is. 60% of users weren’t aware that their feed is not from the users that they’re following. But in reality, the stuff we’re following isn’t what’s gonna pop up first. The stuff that will pop up is what the robots have calculated you will like or be interested in based on what you have already liked and they are also factoring in the money that they will make. This type of filter bubble is harmful in the sense that news can be misleading and sometimes the big tech companies are only promoting the news that will benefit them.
However, this bubble is a cute fluffy bunny in comparison to what WandaVision tackles next. This is the filter bubble going on in Wanda’s own head, the happy false reality. This time she is the one getting filter bubbled and her own trauma/brain/PTSD is the algorithm. Sounds a little sketch, but it is about to take over our world because of all the traumatic events that have happened in the last year (the pandemic, the George Floyd murder, riots, the insurrection, shootings…anything else to add?). Our brains cannot handle all of this grief and pain, so they make a mental bubble, like the one that Wanda is trapped in.
So, Wanda’s life has been a bit hard, lots of loss and traumatic experiences. Given her most recent tragedy, having to kill the love of her life and then getting time rewound so she watches him get killed again, Wanda does not want to feel the pain any longer. She eventually snaps and builds Westview, which shows things that aren’t real. For instance, Vision being alive, different decades, and Wanda’s kids. Wanda just wants to feel okay. She has shown that she reacts well when things are okay (i.e., when she is watching a TV show with her family before the bomb explodes). Therefore, her brain uses her witchy powers to keep feeding her the information that she craves, that she likes, that she stops scrolling to actually look at.
Another way to think about this is through the grief many of us went through during this COVID season. COVID and quarantine was hard, we can all attest to that. Wanda literally seems to know this when she says, “Look, we’ve all been there, right? Letting our fear and anger get the best of us, intentionally expanding the borders of the false world we created. A lot of us went through some trauma and loss and grief, most of that we would prefer not to relive through again (kinda like Wanda!). However, when we shut in and create a filter bubble inside our heads, things don’t go quite well (kinda like Wanda!). We should go receive some help in a good social distancing kind of way, instead of letting our trauma control our minds.
And this is when sites like Facebook and Trump’s social media site can become dangerous. If we get too ingrained in our opinions and ‘truths’, then we can tend to freak out when things don’t fit our narrative. A big example of this is the Capitol riots and all of the trauma that led up to it. “President Trump said to do so,” was a mantra proclaimed by many who stormed the Capitol and were then arrested for breaking in and inflicting violence on those inside. Whether Trump really incited the riots to happen is not the argument here. The fact that so many people believed that they were doing the right thing by committing a crime and an act of violence is jarring. The fact that so many people believe that Trump should still be in office and that the election was fraud is terrifying. There are way too many people who have been traumatized throughout their lives and heavily in the past year who are choosing to stay inside their own opinionated, yet comfortable bubble.
It is oh so very important to break people out of these types of filter bubbles as soon as possible. Other examples of this include all my flat-earthers out there (you know who you are) and the already very two distinct sides of the COVID-19 vaccines. Because once you stay in there for too long, bad — traumatic — things happen when someone tries to break you out.
In Wanda’s case, there are multiple things that try to take her out of her trauma-inflicted filter bubble. For example, S.W.O.R.D. tries to break into the town multiple times to find out what the heck is going on in there. This originally comes in the form of a red toy helicopter during the black and white episodes. Initially, we know what these things are, but knows that Wanda does not like them showing up in her world. These were attempts by S.W.O.R.D. to break in and get information. Wanda’s brain knows that if the outside world gets in, they’ll try to shut down Westview and therefore killing Vision yet again. She does not want this to happen, which is conveyed when she kicks out Monica Rambo for even bringing up the name Ultron in episodes 3 and 4.
In both the brainwashing bubble and the happy false reality bubble, when the characters see the real world, it doesn’t go the greatest. Norm starts to have a panic attack, Herb seems to literally break as he saws through his fence, Agnes (when she is not Agatha to the viewers) is shook, and Wanda gets angry and aggressive, the equivalent of a wild animal backed into a corner. The world is generally against pain and feeling negative emotions, but in this case, isn’t it a good thing that these people feel the bad emotions? When they are feeling the bad emotions, they are exposed to the truth and don’t we all want the truth?
It’s almost inevitable that somewhere down the line we’ll get stuck in a filter bubble. Heck, we’re definitely in one if not more than one at the moment. These bubbles aren’t the worst especially if we know that we’re in them and can easily back out of them. However, when filter bubble 3.0 is on the way (i.e., the “great deplatforming”; where we all scramble to our preferred social media platforms), we have to be able to relate it to WandaVision more than YouTube or Instagram because at this point YouTube is the guy that brings a knife to a gunfight.
Wanda’s filter bubble — the creation of her twin boys, her made-up perfect life — are science fiction. But IRL filter bubbles are starting to make WandaVision science fact. Currently, former president Donald Trump is talking about making his own form of social media. Because Trump got kicked out of Twitter, he thought that he would create his own social media platform so then hypothetically he couldn’t get kicked off of it. Trump’s new social will invite his followers to talk about their views and encourage them to say whatever they want. It sounds like free speech on steroids, people using this platform will only be hearing one side of the issue. While this platform helps Trump, it creates a filter bubble so jarring similar to Wanda’s hex. Both of these bubbles isolate its inhabitants from the outside world. And that isn’t even the scary part. The scary part is that we don’t even know we’re in it. And if we do sort of know, we’re content to be in our ‘safe’ little bubble, just like Wanda prefer’s Westview where everything is happy and makes her feel good.
If we don’t fight these bubbles (i.e. understand where they come from) like Vision fights Wanda in the show or like Monica fights against Wanda, we’ll end up in a world where Thanos happens but no one even realizes that half the people are gone. WandaVision shows the world what is on the horizon for filter bubbles and it’s terrifying to know that our world is slowly starting to resemble what is portrayed in the Disney show. However, instead of getting scared, we should be using this example to get to the origins of our own mental filter bubbles. Specifically, we should go about it in a sympathetic human way, knowing that trauma drives these bubbles. Then, we can get on the track to keeping people the heck out of them and be superheroes of our own.
Hannah Grubbs is a student at North Central University, a Christian college inside Minneapolis. She is also part of the Institute for Digital Humanity, a nationally recognized student-run think tank that fights — alongside the Anti-Defamation League, ACLU-MN, and Indiana University –to burst the filter bubble and advocate for civil rights issues related to technology.